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Come fly with me, from Great Yarmouth’s airport with terminal and customs

PUBLISHED: 12:23 20 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:23 20 May 2017

Passengers boarding a Cessna for a pleasure flight at the North Denes airfield in 1979. Picture: PETER ALLARD

Passengers boarding a Cessna for a pleasure flight at the North Denes airfield in 1979. Picture: PETER ALLARD

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It was the proverbial last straw when Caister Road’s airfield and heliport flew off to Norwich in 2015, adding to the long-ago loss of the refuse destructor, then the Bure Hotel and Smiths Crisps factory in 1985.

The North Denes fleet of Anglian Air Charter Austers about 1958. Picture: PETER ALLARD The North Denes fleet of Anglian Air Charter Austers about 1958. Picture: PETER ALLARD

The former marshland became the base for pleasure flights in fixed-wing aircraft from 1951. During the 1980s, they gave way to helicopters supporting the southern North Sea natural gas industry, ferrying personnel and supplies between mainland and rigs.

No longer do we take a quick peek as we drive past the North Denes Airfield site, hoping to glimpse aircraft taking off and landing. Another prime local era has passed, like those of the herring fishery, timber importing, Birdseye Foods, Erie Resistor...

Now the 60-acre site is for sale, and I doubt aviation will be part of its future, so permit me to reflect on its early years when pleasure flying was its chief function. Bradwell’s Peter Allard, a former employee there, recorded the enterprise in the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society’s journals, and I am grateful for their consent to draw on his research.

The post-war project was launched after shovelling rubble, cinders and earth into dykes and building an access road. Pleasure flights, usually lasting eight to ten minutes, grew in popularity and two Austers “were in regular and constant use throughout the summer, business helped by advertising the 12s 6d (62 pence today) trips on a sky banner towed over the town and seafront.”

An Auster at Caister Road in 1961. Picture: PETER ALLARD An Auster at Caister Road in 1961. Picture: PETER ALLARD

The usual flight path took in Yarmouth town centre and the seafront northwards from the Wellington Pier and Caister golf course, but for a higher fare passengers were flown over Scroby Sands to view the seal colony, and to Caister Holiday Camp, Gorleston or Broadland. The dearest fare was £2.25 in today’s terms.

A driving force was Leslie “Wilbur” Wright who, in 1965 as main director of Anglian Air Charter, furthered his involvement by buying the airfield’s freehold, leasing part to Bristow Helicopters for oil and gas related activities, landing pads and passenger facilities being provided as the North Denes venture developed into Europe’s busiest heliport.

Next came a runway extension, passenger flight terminal with Customs facilities close to Caister Road, acquisition of a nine-seater Britten Norman Islander aircraft for charter work, and the replacement of two aging Austers by Cessnas for pleasure trips.

It was reckoned once that 250,000 passengers had been taken on pleasure flights.

Yarmouth Races provided good business because jockeys, owners, trainers and ancillary personnel often preferred to fly to the airfield, only a proverbial stone’s throw from the course, rather than embarking on long and often frustrating road journeys.

Pleasure flights ended in 1983 when fixed-wing planes ceased to use the airfield, rotary-wing machines having the monopoly. The move disappointed many holidaymakers who had anticipated flights as highlights of their stays.

There was one fatal crash during pleasure-trip era, an Auster plunging into an Elm Avenue bungalow garden in Gorleston in 1962, killing the pilot and three young passengers; nobody in the bungalow was hurt.

The previous month there had been a bizarre attempt to steal an Auster. Reports Peter: “One night, after successfully breaking into the newly-built hangar, the person or persons unknown managed to start the aircraft and taxi it across part of the runway in the dark, but were stopped by the perimeter fence.

“The plane was then abandoned. A stolen car was found close by, having been taken from the Surlingham area earlier that night.”

On a test flight, an Auster lost its propeller over Somerleyton, landing in a field and flipping over, miraculously with no casualties and only minor damage to the plane. And a Cessna which was a write-off after crashing on the airfield was air-lifted back to its hangar...as an ignominious under-slung load by a helicopter.

The Cessna’s two occupants escaped injury. One of them was “Wilbur” Wright’s daughter!

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